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'Unprecedented': Camp Fire's death toll hits record 48 and likely to rise

Dozens of people remain unaccounted for in northern California as the historic blaze rages on.

Firefighters struggled to contain the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California history Tuesday while mobile coroner's teams combed the incinerated remains of a once thriving town and its environs looking for more victims of the carnage.

The historic blaze raging 90 miles north of Sacramento has claimed at least 48 lives, and dozens of people remain unaccounted for. More than 8,800 structures were destroyed by the fast-moving Camp Fire blaze, many in Paradise, a community of 27,000 people.

“This is an unprecedented event,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “If you’ve been up there, you also know the magnitude of the scene we’re dealing with. I want to recover as many remains as we possibly can, as soon as we can, because I know the toll it takes on loved ones.

More search teams, two portable morgue units from the military and cadaver dogs were being brought in Tuesday. The fire had grown to 130,000 acres and was 35 percent contained, Cal Fire said.

Honea identified the first three of the victims of the Camp Fire as Ernest Foss, 65, of Paradise; Jesus Fernandez, 48, of Concow; and Carl Wiley, 77, of Magalia. A mobile DNA lab was set up to identify more victims.

"Forecasted low relative humidity and dry fuel moistures combined with steep rugged terrain will continue to impede control operations," Cal Fire warned.

While the cause of the fire was being investigated, Pacific Gas & Electric drew scrutiny after telling state regulators that it had been having a problem with an electrical transmission line in the area before the fire broke out. Cal Fire investigators were at the scene of the transmission line Monday. PG&E had no comment.

Cal Fire Chief Scott Jalbert, on scene at the Woolsey Fire west of Los Angeles, said drought conditions statewide have made the battles precarious for 8,000 firefighters engaging two fires.

"We are dealing with 30-foot brush and grass," he said. "Up in Northern California, they are dealing with 150 foot trees in addition to 30 foot brush. The fuel loading is just tremendous."

President Donald Trump said he approved an expedited request for a major disaster declaration for the state.

"Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on," Trump Tweeted late Monday. "I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected."

The Woolsey Fire has been blamed for two fatalities. More than 400 homes, businesses and other buildings have been destroyed. While the winds were expected to ease in Northern California, stiff winds were still forecast in the south.

The winds drive down the humidity, helping turn vegetation to tinder in an area that hasn't seen rain in a month. Relief in the form of precipitation remains a week away, and the winds probably will stay a force into Wednesday, AccuWeather warned.

The fire was first reported at 2:24 p.m. Thursday near Woolsey Canyon, east of Simi Valley. Later that day, Edison notified the California Public Utilities Commission that it had experienced an outage two minutes earlier. The location was listed as the Big Rock circuit out of the Chatsworth Substation, also near Simi Valley.

"It is only preliminary information," said Edison spokesman Steve Conroy. "It went out of service. We don't know why it went out of service."

There were positive signs as well, with some of the evacuation zones being reopened and thousands of residents heading home.

Malibu and its environs were hit hard, and Pepperdine University canceled classes at its main campus through next week. Celebrities Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, Gerard Butler, Shannen Doherty and Robin Thicke were among those whose homes were destroyed.

Comic Kevin Hart thanked firefighters on Instagram.

"You men & women are true heroes & me and my family thank you," Hart posted. "My heart & prayers go out to all families in the affected areas. ... This is honestly Unbelievable what we are witnessing at this very moment. God have mercy on us all."

Contributing: Cydney Henderson, USA TODAY; Christian Martinez and Stacie Galang, Ventura County Star; Redding Record Searchlight; The Associated Pres.

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